Many students of Scripture find the OT practice of polygamy a moral embarrassment, and dismiss it as a dispensational concession.
But polygamy is not all of a piece. For there are several types of polygamy:
i) War brides (Deut 21:10-14).
ii) Treaty wives. Many of Solomon’s wives were treaty wives.
iii) Surrogate motherhood (Gen 16:3; 30:3)
iv) Levirate marriage (Deut 25:5-10).
v) Promiscuity (2 Sam 11).
The reasons for taking a war bride might be several: love, lust, a marriage of convenience.
Treaty-wives were a cynical political arrangement.
Surrogate motherhood and Levirate marriage existed because Israel was a tribal society in which land-holdings were the common possession of the clan. Without a legitimate living heir, land would pass out of the clan.
It was also a safety-net for childless widows.
Levirate marriage may also have received a measure of Scriptural sanction insofar as it served to advance the seed of promise (Gen 3:15; 17:6-8).
The Bible condemns promiscuous polygamy (Deut 17:17).
The Bible does not approve of everything it records or regulates. On the other hand, marriage was often seen as an economic institution and economic necessity.
The OT already looked upon polygamy as, at best, an accommodation to besetting sin or special circumstances, and the NT is even less tolerant of this concession (Mt 19:3-12; 2 Tim 3:2).
On the other hand, if, say, a man marries two women, and has children by both, then he has assumed a set of obligations to each which he cannot dissever after the fact—just as a young man who seduces a young woman was thereby bound to marry her (Exod 22:16; Deut 22:28-29). He is committed to care for her forever after. So sin often entangles the sinner in a web of unforeseen obligations.
Monogamy remains the Biblical ideal, but we need to take into account the practical demands that gave rise to certain forms of polygamy, and we also need to come up with our own alternative strategies for dealing with the same circumstances.
Once again we’re on a continuum. One question is whether sexual fantasies are always sinful. By way of answer, Canticles is written in a way that directly and deliberately stimulates the erotic imagination.
But this raises the question of where we draw the line. If Canticles is licit, what about Botticelli, and if Botticelli is licit, what about an X-rated movie?
There are different ways of broaching the answer.
i) One of the dangers of pornography is that it sets up a certain ideal, if “ideal” is the right word, which a normal woman cannot and ought not measure up to. It can spoil the viewer for real women.
ii) In addition, it recruits women who, by definition, make their money engaging in fornication. In effect, you are paying people to sin for your own pleasure.
iii) X-rated movies and other suchlike glorify vulgarity and promiscuity.
iv) Many of the most important things in life defy definition. They cannot be quantified. But that doesn’t render them unreal, or prevent us from drawing some distinctions based on native taste and intuition.
v) The difference between pornography and Canticles is like the difference between bad art and good art. Good art elevates and ennobles its subject. Good art conveys moral, spiritual, and intellectual insight. Bad art trivializes and debases its subject. It demeans rather than redeems. We cannot squeeze this into a uniform formula, but most folks instinctively know the difference. There’s a reason the Uffizi would never swap its Da Vincis and Botticellis for Warhol and Mapplethorpe.
vi) Going back to Canticles, this affords us a striking study in indirection. Canticles creates an explicit impression, but if you take a second look, the impression is fostered, not by anatomical descriptions, but by suggestive comparisons between one thing to another—say a breast and a cluster of grapes, while leaving the rest to the imagination. So there is, in fact, no X-rated imagery to go with the X-rated imagination.
What we have, rather, is the technique of the oblique. Canticles is a sexual allegory rather than a sex manual.
Traditionally, Protestant morality has censured profanity as a violation of the Third Commandment. But in this regard, a few distinctions need to be drawn.
i) The usual application is apt to misconstrue and trivialize the original import. What is in view is probably not the mere use of the Lord’s name as an expletive, but its employment as an imprecation to hex your enemies. Indeed, this residual meaning is still reflected in the designation of certain words as “curse words.”
ii) There is a moral and religious distinction to be drawn between the profane use of holy things and the profane use of unholy things. Using the devil’s name or domain as an expletive is not on the same plane as using the name of God or Christ in vain.
This distinction is oddly lost sight of in traditional Protestant morality. But by definition, there can be no irreverent treatment of the devil, for the subject is inherently impious.
At the same time, there is a danger of trivializing and secularizing something fearfully real.
Many men regard slavery as inherently immortal. But we need to draw some distinctions.
Under the Mosaic law, slavery served two different functions: (i) it was a form of financial restitution for property crimes, and (ii) a way of dealing with POWs.
The first function is really a form of indentured service. There is nothing wrong with it. Indeed, it’s much more sensible than our prison-system. In the Biblical system, the offender works to support himself and restore the victim; in our modern-day system, the victim receives no compensation, and must further finance the cost of the convict's imprisonment and upkeep. So this is both unjust and inefficient all around.
The second purpose may strike us as harsh. But in Bible times, it was a choice of either enslaving the enemy or taking no prisoners.
The problem with POWs is that if you repatriate them, they will live to fight another day. Unless you win the war, and the losing side surrenders, if you release a POW today, he will return to the battlefield and shoot at you tomorrow.
So the Biblical system was about as humane as it was possible to be back then. It was not practical to house POWs in concentration camps. And concentration camps are not distinguished by their quality of life.
There is no nice way to wage war. All the options are bad options. It’s just a choice between the lesser of two evils.
Historically, the church has treated suicide as a damnable sin. Suicide was regarded as a mortal sin, and since—in the nature of the case— the suicide had no chance of absolution once he took his own life, he died outside the state of grace. Hence, he could not be buried on consecrated ground.
Much of this is based on a sacramental theology that does not command the assent of every reader. So we need to revisit the issue.
i) One preliminary question is whether suicide is always a sin. For example, is a suicide mission sinful? Is it sinful for a soldier to knowingly lay down his life to save others—assuming that he cannot accomplish the mission without sacrificing his own life in the process? Samson’s suicide is a suicide mission (Judges 16:21-31). He kills the enemies of Israel at the cost of his own life.
To take another example, suppose an intelligence officer is about to be captured. He has information which, if tortured out of him, will give the enemy a strategic edge. The above examples would seem to be warranted by the altruistic principle of 1 Jn 3:16.
Let us vary the last example. Suppose a soldier is about to be captured by the enemy. He knows that the enemy will torture him to death, out of sadistic glee. Perhaps he is morally wounded already. Is it sinful for him to hasten his own death by suicide? Saul’s suicide is a case in point (1 Sam 31:1-7).
This case is more difficult than the first or second. Still, I would find it hard to condemn a soldier who committed suicide under such circumstances. Is there a moral imperative to endure sodomy and mutilation unto death?
Someone may object that this shades into euthanasia. And maybe it does. Many things shade into other things, but it doesn’t follow that the entire subject is enshrouded in indistinct shades of gray. Doctors and nurses don't ordinarily abuse and torment their patients.
For an extensive analysis of euthanasia, cf. J. Frame, Medical Ethics (P&R, 1988). Since I cannot improve on his discussion, I have no separate entry for mercy-killing.
In ethics we are frequently faced with limiting cases and borderline cases. But the fact that dawn and dusk are borderline cases does not reduce midnight and high noon to borderline cases. We may not always be able to drawn a bright line between the point at which something begins and ends, but the moral continuum is only blurry at the outer edges.
These are extreme cases, but in ethics we must deal with extreme cases. The more common motives for suicide are boredom, guilt, grief, depression, despair, and mental illness.
In discussing the relation of suicide to sin, we need to distinguish between the subjective motive and the objective act. In principle, one can do the right thing for the right reason, the right thing for the wrong reason, the wrong thing for the wrong reason, or the wrong thing for the right reason. So sin can attach one or the other, to both or neither.
Likewise, a certain mental state may either result in sin or be a result of sin. Is mental illness a sin? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Depression is a borderline condition.
Is guilt a sin? Depends on what you do with it. We have many things to feel guilty over. But that should drive us into the arms of Christ.
Is despair a sin? I would say that despair is incompatible with faith in the providence of God, so—yes—despair is a sin.
More generally, suicide does reflect an absence of faith in the mercy and providence of God. It loses hope. But a Christian is never bereft of hope. Yet he may need to be reminded, or remind himself, of God’s good promises. There is no reason to fear the future, for God is the Lord of future time, no less than times present and the past.
In general, then, suicide is sin. And although the traditional view of suicide is someone confused, it is true that the suicide, by his very act, denies himself the possibility of repentance and restoration. So this is not to be taken lightly—by any means. Most of those who take their own lives are not like a soldier on a suicide mission, but a sentinel who deserts his post.
One of the common consequences of sin is to burn our best exits and options. But when find ourselves in a bind of our own doing, the proper course of action is not to add sin to sin, but to take our lumps like a man, in submission to the godly chastisement. And I dare say that most of those who escape a dire straight through suicide will find the welcome on the other side infinitely worse.
In this respect, I regard Saul's suicide as a final act of cowardice, crowning a life of infidelity. But a better case could be made for his armor-bearer.
Which brings us to the next question—is suicide a damnable sin? That depends. Strictly speaking, there are no damnable sins—only a damnable state of the soul, which issues in sin (Mt 7:17-19; 15:19). .
Can a Christian commit suicide and still be saved? I would broaden the question and ask, can a Christian commit sin and still be saved? The answer is yes.
A Christian is still a sinner, a lifelong sinner. At the same time, a Christian is still a believer—a lifelong believer. There is, in a Christian, a mix of faith and sin. There is, in the unbeliever, sin undiluted by faith.
So we want to avoid two extremes. On the one hand, we want to avoid the legalistic extreme of saying that our fate is sealed by the very last thing we do, as though I’m damned if I commit suicide, but saved if I die of a heart attack an hour before I'm able to carry out my suicidal designs. Or that I’m saved if I commit murder an hour before, but make it to the Confessional just before I expire.
On the other hand, we want to avoid the antinomian extreme of saying that no matter how faithless we are, we are always entitled to the benefit of the doubt. Rather, the presumption lies in the pattern of faith and life, for better or worse.
I would like to thank John Frame for taking the time to comment on a draft version of this essay.